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Debs For Our Time (free)

  • A Room of One's Own 315 West Gorham Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

This panel discussion marks the release of a new graphic biography of Eugene Debs. Info

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The newly published Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography connects the work of the crusading socialist leader to the present-day resurgence of socialism, with art by Noah Van Sciver and writing by Paul Buhle, Steve Max, and Dave Nance. Just as importantly, this graphic work (interspersed with written passages) illustrates how socialists are up against many of the same forces Debs took on during the late 19th and early 20th century—ruthlessly extractive capitalism, right-wing authoritarianism, compromised labor leaders, a misinformed societal fear of left-wing ideas, and middle-of-the-road Democrats either to co-opt and water down socialist proposals. Buhle, a historian of both comics and the American left, and Nance, a retired lawyer who plays music and writes graphic nonfiction, both reside in Madison. They'll join historian and WORT host Allen Ruff for a panel discussion at this event, presented in partnership with Madison's Democratic Socialists of America chapter.

Van Sciver's unvarnished style and his eye for the nuances of human facial expressions make him a good fit for this tale of the hardscrabble revolutionary from Terre Haute, Indiana and the strains of immigrant leftism and humanism that shaped him. Buhle and his co-authors have an authoritative grasp on Debs' story and the historical context in which he worked. The book spans all 70 years of Debs' life in just 130-odd pages, which makes for a choppy narrative style. Crucial historical events like the Bisbee Deportation pop up briefly without adequate explanation, and the authors switch between omniscient narration and fourth-wall-breaking remarks from the characters in a way that doesn't really flow. The book also doesn't seem all that interested in Debs as a flawed human being—his greatest failing here is giving too much away to those who need it more. Still, Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography convincingly presents him as a courageous, impassioned, and generous figure with a profound belief in the dignity and creativity of working people—in one of the book's most memorable scenes, a young Debs stops to admire an owl a fellow railroad worker has painted on the side of a boxcar.

Buhle and co-authors are also wise to emphasize that socialism in Debs' time had a strong infrastructure among poor and rural communities in the Midwest, despite the prevailing wisdom that socialism is an out-of-touch coastal-elites thing that won't resonate in Middle America. For all its jump-cutting, the book does hint at the complexities that have always swirled around and within the American left, and reminds today's activists that they're not the first to contend with ignorance, repression, and bigotry. —Scott Gordon

Earlier Event: March 19
Sun Of Goldfinger
Later Event: March 21
The Long Goodbye (free)